Earnhardt tries to gain ground in Chase

Published 1:19 pm Wednesday, October 1, 2008

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) _ Time is running out for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to thrust himself into championship contention, and NASCAR’s most popular driver probably has just one race left to make a major move in the standings.

Fortunately for Earnhardt, his chance to get back into the mix comes at the racetrack where he has been most successful.

Earnhardt heads into Talladega Superspeedway this weekend ranked eighth in the standings, 190 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson. He’s not mathematically out of contention, but a sixth career win in Alabama would go a long way toward making him a player in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

“I think you just have to try to win the race,” Earnhardt said of the proper strategy for Sunday. “The only way to really gain points on anybody right now, for anybody who’s outside of the top five in points, is to be first when the checkered flag falls.”

Earnhardt executed that plan to perfection from 2001 to 2003 when he won four consecutive races at Talladega and established himself as one of the best restrictor-plate races in the series. But he hasn’t been to Victory Lane there since 2004, which was also the last time he was a threat for the championship.

Earnhardt’s win that day pushed him atop the leaderboard, but he cursed on live television during his celebration and the subsequent 25-point penalty NASCAR levied against him started a slow collapse that saw him finish fifth in the standings.

A win Sunday isn’t likely to lift him into the points lead, but it could make him a player in this Chase. And if anyone knows how to get to Victory Lane, it’s Earnhardt, who developed a special affinity for the track long before he became a NASCAR racer.

“My dad was a real good plate racer, so I loved going to the plate tracks to watch and to be a part of his success,” Earnhardt said of his father’s 13 Cup victories at Daytona and Talladega.

“You always knew going into Daytona or Talladega, if you were at the track or at home watching, that you were going to have a lot of fun because he always ran well, led laps, made a lot of incredible moves. It just made it a lot of fun to watch.”

Still, the hulking superspeedways and their sprawling grounds overwhelmed a young Earnhardt, and it wasn’t until he found his own success that he formed a connection with the track.

“These tracks are really intimidating when you’re young, when you go to them for the first time,” he said. “It’s the biggest tracks on the circuit. So when you’re a 15-year-old walking around in the garage area, you see all the preparation that goes into it, you see the speeds those cars are reaching, you just get a big amount of respect for it early on.

“Obviously winning races at the track yourself, you’re going to get a great relationship with the racetrack and feel good about going back to it because you’re having success there.”

It doesn’t hurt that Earnhardt has the skills to master the art of restrictor-plate racing, which differs from other styles because of the reliance a driver must place on traffic and his ability to navigate through it while working with the draft.

Crew chief Tony Eury Jr. said Earnhardt has mastered the style.

“He’s very smart as far as anticipating things happening. He watches the cars, and he knows where the momentum is going just because of the other drivers’ reactions,” Eury said. “He has a very good way of carrying that momentum once he gets it. If he gets a draft and he gets to do a ‘slingshot,’ he’ll carry that for several laps because he knows what to do with it.

“It’s a pleasure to watch him race because he’s probably one of the best out there.”

Earnhardt doesn’t plan to hold anything back this weekend. He can’t afford to if he wants to contend for the Cup title that has eluded him in eight previous seasons.

“We just kind of got to go for broke, really throw it out there and take some chances, really take some risks,” he said. “At Talladega you can make some pretty ridiculous moves, and some of them pay off, some of them don’t. We’ll just have to see what kind of position we’re in on any given lap to be able to try to take advantage of some things happening around us.”